Essential Tools for the 21st Century Musician: Technology

In my previous post about tools for the 21st Century Musician, I discussed improvisation as probably the most useful tool musicians can be using. In a way, technology is even more indispensable. Unless our voice is our primary or only instrument (and even then there are exceptions), then nearly everything we make music on is the result of some level of technology.  Whether we’re talking about the technology of carved bone flutes and dried skins over a wooden frame, or the highly advanced craft that luthiers use to carve/mold stringed instruments, or the ability to build circuitry or program for electronic instruments or computers, there is always some level of technology involved in the making of musical instruments.

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Opera: “I’m not dead!”


With all the talk about San Diego Opera, the Met Opera, and a bit further back, the closure of New York City Opera we might be quick to say that Opera is a dying art form in the US. Indeed, a recent NAI report shows that Opera attendance is steadily declining from a recent high in 2007 of 3,568,000 to 2,304,000 in 2011 (of course, this report is also showing increased attendance at Symphony Concerts from ’09 – 25,443,000 to ’11 – 26,812,000 — more than 10 million more than the declining NFL audiences in all three years. But these are besides the point.

Eamon Pereyra (from left) plays Jaquino, Cassandra Black is Leonore and Erica Schuller plays Marzelline in “Fidelio.”
Eamon Pereyra (from left) plays Jaquino, Cassandra Black is Leonore and Erica Schuller plays Marzelline in the Bollywood version of “Fidelio” by the Skylight Music Theatre.

Bill Eddin’s recent post is by guest blogger, Viswa Subarraman, conductor and Artistic Director of the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee. Subarraman and Skylight recently produced a Bollywood version of Fidelio and the director has some things to say about the San Diego Opera’s decision to call it quits.

San Diego is choosing to go quietly into that good night. The rest of us are choosing to fight to preserve an incredible 200+ year old art form. You know how? By doing great theater. Would we love to hire the Renee Flemings of the world? Sure! But let’s be real – it ain’t gonna happen in Milwaukee. So what can we do? We can find the future Renee Flemings of the world and give them a shot at learning and honing their craft, so they can go on to those big paychecks and big stages. I’m very proud of companies such as ours and Fort Worth Opera that seem to nurture the next generation of great opera singers. It’s also great for our audience – they have the opportunity to see these wonderful artists develop right before their eyes. We also focus on our communities.

Subarraman says, “It is sad to me that a company with the resources that San Diego has doesn’t understand that downsizing, creating variety in their programming, finding young, talented singers (read cheaper) to mix with the stars on stage isn’t diluting the art form. It’s called progressing the art form.

and closes with the admonition to

Try things. You might find that you actually diversify your audience base, which might allow you to start raising even more money. Funny how that can work in so many cities where we create magic with our “diluted” companies! I’m sorry to see San Diego lose its opera company, but man… what an opportunity for some creative opera people to take those resources and bring great art to a community that still wants it.

This echoes a piece I read (thanks to You’ve Cott Mail) by Mary Wisniewski discussing all these big Opera Organizations failing while a plethora of smaller and new opera companies are cropping up all around Chicago–which shouldn’t detract from the fact that the Chicago Lyric has seen its ticket sales up 15 percent for fiscal year 2013.

The smaller Chicago Opera Theater (COT), known for out-of-the-box productions like Duke Ellington’s “Queenie Pie,” last year saw a 20 percent jump in subscribers, said general director Andreas Mitisek.

New companies have sprung up as well. Haymarket Opera Company specializes in the Baroque era, and South Shore Opera Company has done shows using African-American casts, including William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island.”


After my previous post, which discussed the Louisville based Thompson Street Opera Company (as well as my own Klingon Opera which premiered in Louisville), and after performing at Classical Revolution Cincinnati doing some arias from the Klingon Opera last year and getting to hear “The Bubble” by Jennifer Jolley and Kendall A. produced by NANOWorks Opera (North American New Opera Workshop) there, I’d say Opera is evolving and thriving in ways that the big organizations are masking due to all the media attention they get (that Negativity Bias at work again).

Of course, Opera’s death has been greatly exaggerated, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t evolving in ways that mass media representations of it can hope to show given the focus on big organizations. As Rosenberg notes in the link, “Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar had upped the ante with Opera’s Second Death (2001). They argue that opera came into the world ‘stillborn,’ ‘as something outdated.’” and they “acknowledge that composers and wordsmiths go on writing operas, they insist that the genre remains ‘a huge relic’ and ‘an enormous anachronism.’

The irony being that in 2020 the Royal Opera in Britain has commissioned four new works for the 2020 season inspired by Žižek.

The Royal Opera will challenge leading European composers Kaija Saariaho (Finland), Mark-Anthony Turnage (UK), Luca Francesconi (Italy) and Jörg Widmann (Germany) to create large scale new operas. The vision is for four distinct operas, each one in part inspired by the composer’s response to a set of questions developed in collaboration with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek: “What preoccupies us today? How do we represent ourselves on stage? What are the collective myths of our present and future?”

In other somewhat related news, my interactive video and cello project, Camera Lucida, will be giving a performance and a talk/performance at The International Žižek Studies Conference next weekend. While we can only be there for one day of the conference and will not likely have much of a chance to interact with Žižek, our day talk/performance will focus on a piece we call “Fossils” which uses appropriated text which will be incorporated in the multi-media performance (with Acro-Dancers, Holly Price and Christopher Cox) both as a pre-recorded element and live by me.

Christine Olson dancing to Camera Lucida's "Fossils" at the Commonwealth Gallery in Madison, WI.  November 10, 2012
Christine Olson dancing to Camera Lucida’s “Fossils” at the Commonwealth Gallery in Madison, WI. November 10, 2012


The closest analogue I can think of to our performance would be the late, Robert Ashley’s “Different Lives” which is a completely different and more experimental way to approach opera.

Opera isn’t dead, it’s just changing far too fast for most people to understand and morphing into new forms and smaller, more nimble organizations which can produce works that can be a bit more experimental and exploratory. As long as we allow the Crisis folks to dominate the discourse, we’re not going to see much focus on this.

Noise: when instruments and skills are irrelevant to the Music Revolution

In a couple of weeks I’ll be performing at the St. Louis Noisefest (here’s the facebook event) at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center. It’s been over ten years since I last played there (see pic below) and I’d been invited to play the festival on a couple of occasions in the past though I wasn’t able to commit for various reasons.

Jon Silpayamanant, aka Noiseman433, playing a set at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center in St. Louis, MO during the Rotten Piece 2003. May 09, 2003. photo by Carol Kelly
Jon Silpayamanant, aka Noiseman433, playing a set at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center in St. Louis, MO during the Rotten Piece 2003. May 09, 2003. photo by Carol Kelly

I’d mentioned briefly my foray into noise in my post about my alma mater and its new 21st Century Musician Initiative, but didn’t say much about all the activities I had done during that exploratory period. By the time I had graduated with a degree in music performance I was well on the road to “quitting” music. My last “official” cello performance was in 1996 (I would pick up the cello on three occasions from 1996-2003) and wouldn’t be regularly playing it again until I joined il Troubadore in 2004.

In 1997 I’d finally discovered Merzbow and Noisemusic after a couple of years of exploring the experimental/avant garde side of classical music.

Rather than give a summary of the history of noise music and this underground experimental musical culture I’ll relate a conversation I had with Peter Sachon–a wonderfully versatile cellist who works in several genres. The discussion centered around whether there was more creativity in pop music than classical music (a ridiculous debate, really) and he couldn’t quite believe that there might be a group of musicians who might loathe pop music as much as it does classical music. Here’s the relevant excerpted exchange

JON: I’d probably not have nearly as much of a problem with the idea that pop music is generally much more innovative than classical music if it weren’t for the fact that there exists, and has existed for decades a scattered global movement of non-academic experimental musicians that could care less about Classical music, and have no ties to it, but absolutely hate the idea of what pop music stands for in terms of relative lack of creativity. Hell, they even rail on Merzbow now for getting all “semi-popular” which really amuses me to no end. (comment permalink)

PETER: I don’t know who these non-academic experimental musicians are, but I think some of them have a band called Radiohead. The only people who can’t stand what “pop music stands for” are classical musicians. We must change the classical industry’s artistic snobbery. It holds us all back. (comment permalink)

JON: Non-Academic Experimental Musicians Having been involved with the international experimental music and noise scene since the 90s I’ve had the good fortune of understanding how these non-classical trained and generally pop music loathing folks feel about the music industry in general. Take the noise sub-genre in particular (since those were the circles I was primarily performing and touring with) since it had it’s beginnings right around the time that the pop music industry went global, as it were, in the late 70s early 80s. Most of those folks were nearly always creating their work in opposition to pop music. Half of the aesthetic was to create a musical sound and culture that was implicitly not commodifiable (and yes, I understand that’s a false dichotomy as well, but indulge me). Much of the subject matter, “band names” (e.g. Pop Culture Rape Victim, Premature Ejaculation, Gerogerigegege), appropriation of sound was technically illegal as the artists commonly explored and exploited taboo subjects and flaunted their abuse of copyrights. At the same time they would scoff at anyone who would tie in their sound aesthetic with figures like Luigi Russolo, John Cage, George Antheil and other figures in th academic avant garde. That’s just one subgenre of this worldwide community (I use “community” very loosely) of musicians. (comment permalink)

I think it’s telling that Peter references Radiohead as a “non-academic experimental musician” –I remember, while I was still heavily involved in that noise scene, when some folks (usually on the fringe of the scene) brought the band up as something new and fresh and “way out there” and most of the experimental folks thought it was pretty run-of-the-mill pop smack.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s with bands like The Haters (US), Whitehouse (UK), early Einsturzende Neubauten (Germany), and the aforementioned Merzbow (Japan) we had the beginnings of what would eventually evolve into an international noise music scene. The movement, if it can be called one, was able to evolve due to new technologies which helped to propel pop music into an international phenomenon. Home recording became ubiquitous which meant that anyone could create a demo tape which could be sent to labels, but more importantly it also create an underground tape trading network. This was one of the ways that these artists started discovering each other since there was no way one of these acts would be featured on growing music video broadcasts such as MTV.

Part of the reason is by (either conscious or unconscious) design–the majority of proponents in the movement were radically anti-pop. Their instruments of choice were effects rackmounts, stompboxes, and found or circuit-bent sound sources–the idea was that the musical instrument (such as electric guitars. basses, and drums) got in the way of the musical expression. Some of the acts also used (illegally) sampled sounds as sources, or titled their acts and releases with names that are still taboo in any polite market.

I remember reading about early infamous Hanatarash shows and how Yamatsuka Eye (who would later collaborate with John Zorn on his game pieces) had driven a bulldozer (actually a backhoe) through the venue only to be tackled by bouncers/security before throwing his molotov cocktails. Eye was had also cut a dead cat in half with a machete during a performance and nearly sawed his leg off with a power saw during another (yes, some noise artists also used power tools as instruments).

The experiments with non-musical objects in live performance and recordings make bands like Radiohead seem as tame and old-hat (i.e. boring) as anything else coming out of the pop music world.

By the time I got involved with the community it had settled down a bit into [some] more thoughtful experimentation though there were a few acts I had the pleasure to work with that still bordered on being “dangerous.” I had already released a couple of self-produced recordings and had one live show (though not officially as Noiseman433) in the late 90s but the first live noise show I got to attend was in Cincinnati in 2001. The two headlining acts were Cock E.S.P. (from Minneapolis) and The Eugenics Council (from St. Louis).

I remember that show well–I still have video of it somewhere around here. D.N. and Rosemary Malign of the Eugenics Council gave a blistering set with vocals by Rosemary which evoked Diamanda Galas in its fury and D.N. using electronics, power tools, and flash powder and tear gas bombs. I remember laughing so hard even while my eyes were burning (D.N. is a trained chemist who made all his own pyrotechnics) while they had a video of some scat porn being projected behind them. The video below (not from the Cincy show) will give you some idea of what this look and sounded like:

Cock E.S.P. was part “Professional Wrestling” match with screaming (literally) by Elyse Perez while Emil Hagstrom and Matt Bacon smashed amplified objects (including a guitar) throughout the stage. This compliation video from that time period will give you a much better idea of what this looked like:

I would later go on to tour with both of these acts in 2003 and play a number of other shows with The Eugenics Council (later renamed Think Machine for various reasons). This video of me at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center was from one of those shared bills with the latter.

I came away from that short set with bloody and swollen hands–something I didn’t notice until much later since the adrenaline was still pumping. I’m much more careful about the amplified sheet metal sets now because I have come back to the cello. As I come back to this scene I see so many new names and acts and so much creative mash-ups and collaborations (keep in mind that the experimental noise scene is just one small subset of a much bigger non-academic experimental music scene) and some of my latest noise performances have included using fishtanks (video here)

Noiseman433 at the Louisville Experimental Festival on 29 June 2012. Haymarket Whiskey Bar in Louisville, Kentucky
Noiseman433 at the Louisville Experimental Festival on 29 June 2012. Haymarket Whiskey Bar in Louisville, Kentucky

amplified metal chairs

or amplified acoustic instruments like erhu (end of this video), or the cello (this video)–I’ve come full circle from when I left the cello!

The other interesting thing is that once I did come back to the cello I was working on a project called T.E.C. (Turntables, Electronics, and Cello) in 2003 which somewhat melded the experimental electronics and cello, but it was with il Troubadore I was back into the “normal” realm of music making (as normal as any act that plays Klingon Opera dressed as Klingons with Orion bellydancers can be, at least). The majority of that time from 2004 till recently has been spent playing with world musicians from many other genres and lands even while building up a repertoire of over 700 songs from several dozen countries in 50+ languages with il Troubadore.

I come back to Peter’s comments above and think how parochial his (and other crisis folks) simple Pop vs Classical dichotomy seems, especially when I’ve spent the last nearly 20 years not playing in either field. If it’s this kind of myopia that drives the “Classical Music Revolution” then maybe it’ll be better if that revolution is stillborn.  There’s a whole wide musical world (and universe) out there, folks.  Let’s get past this Western Pop/Classical debate and start exploring it!

on dancing while playing the cello… (part 2: Music as Choreography)

Still from "Pavane" - an imaginative rendition of the Fauré piece by cellist, Marston Smith, and dancer, Karolina Muyingo.
Still from “Pavane” – an imaginative rendition of the Fauré piece by cellist, Marston Smith, and dancer, Karolina Muyingo.

In my previous post I talked about the Choreography of the Mouth when learning how to sing in multiple langauges and mentioned I would post about Music as Choreography.  Here is that post.  As I said previously:

It’s simply about the choreography of the mouth (my next post will talk about Music as Choreography) which is really no different than the choreography of any other part of the body. You move or you manipulate your body in various ways to make a sound. Sometimes that sound comes from your body (e.g. your voice), and sometimes that sounds comes from some external device that your body is interacting with (e.g. musical instrument).

Obviously there’s a difference between being, say, a musical act with a choreographed or semi-choreographed stage show and a performance that was designed as a theatrical piece.  In the end, the difference isn’t much more than the level and difficulty of “precomposed” choreography.  Whether you’re putting on a rock show and headbanging (e.g. Apocalyptica) or running around the stage (e.g. the late Mike Edwards of ELO), it still involves some kind of choreography–even if that is just spontaneous and improvised choreography.

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on dancing while playing the cello…

Jon Silpayamanant as Shiva before performing with his dance/music duo, Secondhand, in Newport.  March 30, 2013
Jon Silpayamanant as Shiva before performing with his dance/music duo, Secondhand, in Newport, Kentucky. March 30, 2013

Even though my first formal entry into dancing with the cello was nearly a year ago when I worked with my dance/music project, Secondhand, it was in a performance where I played the role of a cello playing Shiva. Since Shiva is the “Lord of the Dance” my role with my artistic partner, Celeste, was a counterpoint to her role as a dancing Kali.

Back in 1996 I almost took an audition with Tales & Scales, a Musictelling company which involved the musicians telling stories for children while dancing and speaking the roles of their characters–if a member/character wasn’t actively speaking or doing a demanding dance number, then the member would be playing their instrument as accompaniment to the story. Often the dancing and choreography involved playing while dancing. Cellist, David Eby, had been a company member until the ’94-’95 season and presumably – had I taken and won the audition – I would have filled his role since many of the productions are designed for the instrumentalists at hand.

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